Catch-up: follow Barrow’s lead on summer provision

6 Mar 2021, 5:00

It’s possible to deliver summer catch-up without burning out the teaching workforce. We’ve been doing it for years, writes John Woodcock

Exhausted teachers could be forgiven for not whooping with joy at the prospect of giving up their summer for the catch-up tuition programme announced by education secretary Gavin Williamson last week. Between adapting to the news there will be no exams this year and preparing for the full return of on-site schooling next week, they’ve already got a vastly more challenging workload than usual.

There is a real risk of staff burn-out. No matter how dedicated teachers are to addressing the disadvantage inflicted on pupils in these dreadful circumstances, they also need some time off after 12 months in which schools have repeatedly recast their delivery models to enable their students to keep learning in the pandemic.

Helping this generation of students catch up should clearly be a national priority, and the promise of an extra £400 million is essential. Yet sharing the load by finding new ways to help teachers deliver summer provision is surely vital. The risk of the alternative is that too many schools will not feel able to fill the six-week summer vacation in the way the Covid cohort needs. And given catch-up is going to take far longer than just one summer, it makes little sense to run teachers ragged so they aren’t ready for the next academic year.

Sharing the load to help teachers deliver summer provision is surely vital

This week I have written to Mr Williamson to urge him to consider the kind of whole-community approach we developed so in Barrow-in-Furness when I was the town’s MP. We founded the Furness Future Leaders’ Academy to address entrenched problems of poor education attainment and low ambition that have long held back young people in this area of Cumbria. The pilot summer school ran successfully from 2014 until it was paused during the pandemic.

Each year, we asked primary school teachers to identify students from a range of ability levels who they thought would benefit from the confidence boost of extra tuition. Our focus was on improving soft skills while learning in an alternative setting.

We approached local businesses who were readily convinced of the need to invest in their future workforce. BAE, who employ around 10,000 local people making submarines in Barrow shipyard, wind farm developers Ørsted, local paper the Mail, Cumbria County Council and many others gave the academy monetary support and lent us inspiring staff members.

We took over Furness College for three weeks. Retired teachers volunteered their time alongside apprentices from sponsoring organisations. I took a hands-on approach in the classroom in the first year too, having completed a level 2 teaching assistant qualification for the purpose.

With a different local school taking on the responsibility of shaping the curriculum and providing lead teachers each year, the result was a varied and fun full-time placement for up to 100 year 5s. Teachers told us it brought lasting benefit as their students entered secondary education with increased confidence and motivation.

As I left the House of Commons in 2019, responsibility for the Furness Leaders’ Academy was formally taken on by the Furness Education and Skills Partnership, an organisation bringing together schools with local employers and agencies. In the weeks ahead, I will be helping FESP go back to those organisations and volunteers to ask them to step up again with funding and loans of staff to meet the education emergency Covid has created.

The delivery model will need to be different, given the huge increase in need created by the pandemic. But I am optimistic the Barrow community will rise to the challenge again, as could many others across the country.

This is surely a moment to boost the nation’s teaching assets with the best of local business and volunteering. The only way we have a chance of bringing children back up to speed and supporting them in their recovery from this dreadful 12 months is to involve the whole community. Barrow has done this successfully for a number of years now. My hope is that we can help others across the country do the same for their kids too.

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